Upskilling Employees for the Future of Work

According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report: 2018,” “By 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.” With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learningautomation has already impacted numerous organizations across industries, and it’s predicted to impact more in the future.

As employees fear their job security is dwindling and organizations fear their employees don’t have the skills needed to sustain the business, it is imperative that more organizations take an active role in their employees’ professional development by upskilling employees for the future of work.

Many major organizations are already investing in these types of upskilling programs. For example, Amazon’s recently announced “Upskilling 2025” initiative pledges to spend $700 million on upskilling programs to help more employees gain expertise in areas like machine learning and software engineering, according to the press release. Additionally, in 2016, Google announced a $1 billion IT initiative aimed at upskilling employees whose jobs may be disrupted by technology.

Clearly, upskilling is powerful force against the rapid pace of automation impacting nearly all industries. Now, let’s examine how more organizations can leverage these initiatives to help their employees (and, in turn, themselves) succeed in the future of work.

Why Upskill?

According to human resources writer Suzanne Lucas, the cost of replacing an employee can be as high as 150% of that person’s annual salary. As JFF’s “Becoming an Impact Employer” report points out, training current employees is a cost-efficient alternative. To help organizations do so, JFF created a corporate action platform “to equip employers with evidence-based strategies to boost economic mobility among their workforce — with a specific focus on frontline, entry-level, and low- and middle-skilled workers whose jobs are at risk of being disrupted by artificial intelligence [AI] and automation,” says Maria Flynn, JFF’s president.

Upskilling is good for business in other ways, too. According to a report by Capgemini Research Institute, “Employees who benefit from upskilling are able to better leverage automation tools but more importantly move to more value-added activities, thus driving more output for the organization.”

How to Prepare Employees for the Future of Work

To become an impact employer, Flynn advises organizations to “secure a commitment to employee development from the top — in words and deeds from the CEO and other members of the C-suite that further the company’s commitment to talent advancement at all levels of the organization.” She adds that they should also project future hiring needs and start building training and recruiting programs now to meet them; partner with community colleges and other non-traditional education providers to develop a more diverse, expanded talent pipeline; “interrogate job postings” to understand which specific requirements/credentials may be depriving qualified candidates of opportunity; and implement “thoughtful offboarding programs” that connect former employees to career pathways outside the organization.

Sean Segal, chief operating officer at Generation USA, agrees that companies should look to non-traditional candidates to help them bridge skills gaps as automation advances. One way Generation USA helps upskill non-traditional candidates (such as economically disadvantaged youth and older workers), is through its bootcamp programs that integrate “behavioral skills, mindsets and technical skills that are tailored toward specific professions” and result in a certificate.

Although some job roles still require degrees, many people can succeed in entry-level technical roles if they have the right skill set. It’s important to remember that “someone with a non-traditional background can come in and be really successful in your company,” Segal notes. By disregarding non-traditional candidates, “Companies won’t be able to fill their hiring needs as the economy continues to change and grow.”

To help more learners advance their careers through upskilling, L&D professionals should ensure they have access to the data on these initiatives (e.g., average salary after graduation, employment and unemployment rates after graduation, and the typical roles graduates fill). By assessing the data on needed skills and upskilling initiatives and credential programs, training professionals and learners can determine which one will advance their professional development.

Credential Engine is one organization dedicated to meeting this need by collecting and publishing data on all types of credentials. “We believe that once the full landscape of credential data is made transparent, open and communicated in a common language, employers and students alike will be armed with the information they need to determine the value and quality [of credential programs] for themselves,” says Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine.

To successfully upskill retail and hospitality workers and better prepare them for the future of work, Credential Engine recently expanded its National Retail & Hospitality Credentials Initiative, which Cheney describes as a “national effort to identify, capture and publish the full range of industry credentials currently available in the retail, hospitality, restaurant lodging and related sectors.” The initiative, backed by Walmart and managed in concert with the National Retail Federation Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, and the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation, proves that upskilling must be an organizational effort. As Sara Anderson, director of workforce development at the National Restaurant Association, puts it, “If we want to have more successful businesses tomorrow, we have to help attract and upskill the workforce of today to our industry and within our industry.”

Skills for the Future of Work

To ensure employees have the in-demand skills they need to succeed in the future of work, training professionals must identify those skills to begin with. Josh Squires, director of enterprise solutions at Docebo, says agility is one such skill that can help employees better navigate the future of work. “Things are changing so quickly, so rapidly that you really have to adapt quickly, and so having that [agility] as a part of our DNA and a part of your framework, from my perspective, [is important],” he shares. “You have to be willing to pivot quickly.” L&D professionals can help set employees up for success by integrating learning agility tactics into the onboarding process.

Social and emotional skills and high-level cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision-making and complex information processing, will also be in demand in the future, according to McKinsey. Further, Squires says, “Autodidact skills, [being able to learn independently], will be the No. 1 skill employees will need to succeed in the future.” A culture of learning will help learners develop this future-proof skill set.

The Big Picture

By investing in talent development initiatives to help learners succeed in the age of automation and considering non-traditional (but skilled) candidates for new roles, organizations can position themselves for success. Perhaps most importantly, they will now understand that upskilling not only helps employees thrive in the future of work but helps the organization thrive as well.

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